Insects are Disappearing! Here’s How We Stop It

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What would happen if all the mosquitos in the world suddenly disappeared? The loss of any species is generally considered a bad thing for the planet, but in that case I’ve seen actual biologists sort of shrugging their shoulders and admitting that maybe we’d all be better off. Fuck those needle-nosed assholes.

But the same isn’t true for all insects. If all the insects disappeared, we’d be pretty well screwed. Arthropods, which include insects, spiders, millipedes — I mean, all the things we usually just think of as “bugs,” plus crustaceans, which I personally think of as “sea bugs” — make up a tremendous and important segment of our environment. I’m reminded of the (apocryphal) story of the biologist J.B.S. Haldane who was asked what his study had taught him about the nature of God, to which he replied, “an inordinate fondness for beetles.”

Of all the species we know about in the world insects alone count for 80%, and biologists believe that there are millions more we have yet to discover. Millions! There are about 10 quintillion insects alive right now, as I’m speaking. YIKES. So yeah, if all of those disappeared, a lot of small animals like frogs and birds would go hungry and die, and then a lot of larger mammals would go hungry and die, and a lot of plants would no longer be pollinated, and, well, you get the idea.

So it’s a pretty big deal that a new global review on the state of insects has come out this week and it’s fucking grim. Francisco Sanchez-Bayo at the University of Sydney analyzed more than 70 long-term studies on the biodiversity of insect species worldwide and found that about 40% of all of them are on the decline, population-wise, with about 30% of them headed straight for extinction. Sachez-Bayo points out that some areas of the world are seeing such a steep decline that within 10 years there may be no insects in those regions at all.

That’s terrifying, but it’s not necessarily the last word on the issue. My friend, talented entomologist Gwen Pierson, aka BugGirl, broke it down pretty well on Twitter:

??Will all insects go extinct? Heavens no!

??Will a some insect species go extinct, or decline a lot? Already happening.

??Will some insect species increase, and become more common/spread across the globe? Already happening.

And she directs people to the Entomological Society of America, who point out that fact about how there are millions of species we haven’t even identified yet, so we don’t even know the extent of this problem. Those unknown species might be doing the same thing, declining, or they may be increasing.

But the fact that the percentage of insects we can see are almost all declining, and other biologists are seeing a corresponding decline in the populations of birds who subsist on insects…that’s a big worry. So what do we do?

As I talked about with the bees, there’s no one reason why we’re seeing such a dramatic decline in insect populations. One huge problem is climate change — yep, just like with the bees, and with the forest fires, and pretty much every other pressing environmental problem we’re having right now. It touches everything, and it’s probably the reason why we’re all going to die, to be honest.

But that’s mostly in places like Puerto Rico, where an increase in cyclones led to an increase in deforestation, which led to a lack of habitat for insects. In other places, like Europe and the US, the problem is more directly humans: pesticides, and lawns. Yes, lawns. If you have a lawn, you have to get rid of it. GET RID OF IT. Seriously.

I’m loathe to make individuals feel bad about their choices when the much larger problem comes from corporations and politicians making much, much, much worse decisions that have a much much much larger impact. But this is a thing that you can help with: keeping a lawn is generally just a waste of resources (especially here in California where we have significant issues with water access) and worse (in this circumstance) it removes native plants that are part of the habitat for local insects. Those plants evolved along with those insects, so they can support more of those insects than the invasive plants in your garden can. And if your yard is just grass, well, it may as well be a parking lot because nicely mown grass does jack shit for insects

One study found that grass is actually the US’s single largest irrigated crop in surface area, even more so than corn. Of course that includes things like golf courses, and I’m sorry if you enjoy golf but those things are a ridiculous waste of space that also takes away native habitats. That’s right, golf has a significant carbon imprint, even before you take into account the private jet that carries Donald Trump from DC to Florida and back every weekend.

So yeah, it may not be the end of the world (yet), but our insects aren’t doing so well, and if they keep declining, things are going to get bad. If you want to help, and if you’re one of the lucky few to actually have a yard, consider burning it down. Well, not literally, that could be dangerous. Get that boring grass out of there and learn about the plants that are native to your area. Your yard will look way cooler, and you’ll be providing a home to the millions of individuals who are working hard to keep our entire food chain in good order.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. The surface area thing is for ‘irrigated crop area’. The area of rain-fed crops is a lot bigger.

    But I agree, lawns are useless, but I think the figure included things like football fields (I know, useless also), but you can’t play sports on fields that are dried out and with dead grass.

    They cite a paper on the insects of Puerto Rico, that also includes information on animals that eat insects, which are also in decline.

  2. Can we kill the mosquitos and keep the insects that don’t spread deadly diseases?

    Maybe kill bedbugs too. My neighbor had those, and I’ve been paranoid af about them ever since.

    1. Yes! And fleas! Somehow my two indoor cats got fleas and every time I’d go to my basement they’d jump on me. It took about three months to get rid of them with sprays, constant vacuuming, putting stuff on the cats, flea combs and it still took a while. And their bites are horrible. Worst itching I’ve ever had.

      Maybe ticks too.

    2. Bed Bugs aren’t so bad. They are crappy climbers, so if they can’t climb up onto your bed, you are ‘safe’. There are these things called ‘interceptors’, which are slippery plastic which they can climb into, but can’t climb out of.

      Bed bugs don’t spread any diseases (that are known of). They do use histamine as a pheromone to attract other bed bugs, and that is way allergenic, so if you suddenly get asthma, it could be bed bugs.

      Gene drive is the way to get rid of mosquitoes. Sterile insects was how they got rid of screw flies in the US. Mosquitoes are not hardy enough to use that technique.

      Gene drives are the way to go, but I would only use them on exotic species, so as not to kill off native species; but it is the exotic ones that spread most of the diseases.

  3. Thank You Rebecca for this article as well as for the previous ones, that I’ve had a pleasure to read (or watch a video). I’m happy, that You are not just criticising the state of things, but also offering solutions. I’m missing this factor in the sceptical movement. It is easier to point out the problems and laugh on how poorly is it currently being handled. Much harder is to come with the solution. Thank You for a healthy mix of scepticism, humour and problem-solving attitude. Excuse my english please. I hope it’s still a bit better, than the one Your president tries to use. Tom Nosek, Prague, central Europe

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